(Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10)
For those who care about such things, much can be said about what a successful church looks like. We Christians can discuss this topic endlessly. Included in the discussions are opinions about:
- Membership: the number of members, the number of active members, the number of inactive members, the number of new members, the number of new Christians, the number of baptisms, not enough young adults, not enough families, too many older people
- Preaching: biblical preaching, topical preaching, justice preaching, political preaching, short sermons, long sermons, boring sermons
- Sunday School: Sunday school for children, Sunday school for youth, Sunday school for adults, Bible study
- Programs: not enough programs, not enough people for programs, too many programs, no programs
- Music: traditional music, contemporary music, rock music, folk music, electronic music, organ music
- Sanctuary: too cold, too hot, uncomfortable pews, unmovable pews, movable pews, chairs instead of pews, stained glass, clear glass, too big, too small
- Children in worship: good thing, bad thing, don’t care as long as they sit quietly
- Community outreach: church doesn’t do enough in the community, church dominates the community, church doesn’t do the correct things for the community
- Fellowship: church is welcoming, church isn’t welcoming, not enough gatherings, too many gatherings
- And so on . . .
We can endlessly discuss what makes a successful church, and we can agree and disagree about it, but the scripture passage from the Acts of the Apostles today gives us the description of the first church and the characteristics are really quite simple. There are just a few.
First, we read, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching . . .” (42). At that time, there was no Bible, so the first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings. Today, we would call that Bible study. Characteristic #1 is Bible study.
Second, we read, “They devoted themselves to . . . fellowship . . .” (42). Gathering together was necessary because, where two or three are gathered in his name, there Jesus is (Mt 18:20). Characteristic #2 is fellowship.
Third, we read, “They devoted themselves to . . . breaking bread . . .” (42). Eating together was part of what the first Christians did. Remember, when Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him until they broke bread together? We experience the risen Christ when we break bread together, which we now call “celebrating communion.” Characteristic #3 is celebrating communion together.
Fourth, we read, “They devoted themselves to . . . prayers” (42). Praying together was essential. Prayer is how we connect to both God and each other. The two parts of the cross – vertical and horizontal – take shape spiritually when we pray. The connection goes both up and out. Characteristic #4 is prayer.
Fifth, we read, “Awe came upon everyone . . .” (43). Other words for awe are “reverence” and “wonder.” The first Christians revered God and were full of wonder at what God had done throughout salvation history. There was a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving among them. Today, we experience and express those things in and through worship. Characteristic #5 is worship.
Sixth, we read, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (44-45). The first Christians would share their wealth among them so everyone’s needs were met. They attended to each other, not only through fellowship and prayer, but through money. They were generous. Our church does this through the Fellowship Fund (which you can contribute to today). Characteristic #6 is generosity.
The first church had these six characteristics: Bible study, fellowship, communion, prayer, worship, and generosity. These six characteristics created a community of spiritual and material abundance, a community to which all were welcome. In the gospel reading today from John, Jesus states, “I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). The first church offered abundant life to all who desired it. According to the first church, only these six characteristics make a church successful, because these six characteristics create a community of spiritual and material abundance. The description of the first church teaches us that a church doesn’t have to be or do anything more than these six things to be a successful church. It’s really quite simple.
As we wonder and, even, worry about the future of the Church, in general, and this church, in particular, it is comforting to realize that all we have to do to be a successful church are these six things, which are six things we are doing already and will continue to do, God willing! It’s simple, really: study the Bible together, gather together, celebrate communion together, pray together, worship together, and be generous together. The key word is “together,” which makes sense because, where two or three are gathered, there Jesus is, and where Jesus is, there is life abundant. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, May 7, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Image from https://startuptown.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/abundance.jpg